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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

New Book of Archival Photos Sheds Light on Malibu Filming Locations

• Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains Are a Mecca for Cinematic Sleuths Seeking Scene Sites


Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains that surround it have served as a convenient substitute for thousands of exotic locations over the past nearly 100 years of filmmaking, standing in for everything from Wales and Africa, to Shangri-La and the Planet of the Apes.
A new book by film historians Karie Bible, Marc Wanamaker and Harry Medved, entitled “Location Filming in Los Angeles,” provides a glimpse of some of the earliest Malibu-area filming sites, and offers the tantalizing suggestion that the very first scene shot in California for a dramatic film—the Selig Polyscope Company’s 1908 costume drama “The Count of Monte Cristo”—may have been filmed in Malibu’s backyard, near what is now Topanga State Beach.
Bible and Medved were at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area Visitors Center this weekend, with NPS ranger and film location authority Mike Malone to discuss the book and the area’s rich but often bewildering film history.
Medved and Bible explained that, while the American film industry began in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, a campaign by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce “enticed filmmakers with sunshine.”
Film companies may not have found “350 days of sunshine,” as promised, but they did find mild winters, inexpensive land, beaches, mountains, desert and a rapidly burgeoning urban landscape.
Malibu is listed as a substitute for “the Coast of Spain,” on a 1938 Paramount Studios location map that is included in the book. Other nearby designations include Wales, and the South Sea Islands.
Bible said that when they started the book project, she spent many hours in film historian Marc Wanamaker’s basement film archive, studying production photos.
“The book has a lot of photos that have never been seen—rare glimpses into history,” she said.
Medved screened a montage of scenes from 40 films shot in the Santa Monica Mountains, including clips of John Ford’s 1941 Academy Award-winning “How Green Was My Valley,” scripted by longtime Malibu resident Philip Dunne, which transformed a hillside in what is now Malibu Creek State Park into a Welsh coal mining village.
In 1998, the same area became 1950s suburbia for “Pleasantville,” directed by Gary Ross.
Some locations are well-documented and instantly recognizable. Rock Pool in Malibu Creek State Park shows up in dozens of films, including the Johnny Weissmuller “ Tarzan” series, shot between 1932-48, George Roy Hill's 1969 “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and Frank Capra’s 1937 “Lost Horizons.”
Malibu Creek State Park doubled as Korea for director and Malibu resident Robert Altman’s 1970 film “M*A*S*H and the subsequent TV series, and as Africa in the 1962 Irwin Allen CinemaScope version of Jules Verne’s “Five Weeks in a Balloon,” and the 1967 big budget musical version of “Doctor Doolittle” directed by Richard Fleische.
Many film locations have been identified by Malone and Medved by matching the ridge lines captured on film to the local topography. “The hills don’t lie,” Malone said.
In other cases, anecdotes from surviving crew members or area residents have provided missing links.
Several members of the audience volunteered facts about the Conejo area during the presentation, and the film historians are always on the hunt for new leads.
However, some landmarks can be challenging to find. A massive oak tree visible in the background of Henry King’s 1955 “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” puzzled the film historians.
A careful search of the area where the film was believed to have been shot eventually turned up the tree's stump. Other areas have been subdivided and developed past recognition.
Malone has spent years piecing together film location history in the SMMNRA. It’s a labor of love for the ranger.
“It’s detective work,” he said, “like doing genealogy. So many people from the golden age of Hollywood are long gone.”
Malone’s persistence and attention to detail has rewarded him with some fascinating discoveries.
A ranch in the Malibu Hills that repeatedly appeared in studio film logs-including “Last of the Mohicans” and even “Gone with the Wind,” caught Malone’s attention. His inquiries eventually reached the ranch owner’s daughter, who confirmed the ranch’s location in what is now Trifuno Canyon.
Malone said that the National Park Service will be hosting a screening of the 1939 “Beau Geste,” starring Gary Cooper and Ray Milland, on Sept. 10 at Paramount Ranch in Agoura, preceded by a walk to the ridgeline where the film was shot.
Film historians like Medved, Bible and Malone continue to follow a cinematic treasure hunt for Hollywood’s lost local Shangri-La, while new film location history continues to be made in the area.
In 2008, Marvel Comics superhero billionaire Tony Stark’s seaside mansion in “Iron Man” was located on the top of Point Dume, just a few hundred feet above the location where the post-apocalyptic Statue of Liberty from “Planet of the Apes” once stood.
“Location Filming in Los Angeles” is published by Arcadia Publishing and is available at the SMMNRA visitor center at bookstores or online booksellers.
Malibu residents who have local historic film location information they are willing to share can contact Medved at or Malone at

POST-APOCALYPTIC POINT—Charlton Heston receives a terrible shock at Westward Beach in the 1968 “Planet of the Apes.” Longtime locals remember that the production company built an elaborate and somewhat precarious set across the rocks at the base of Point Dume. 20th Century Fox

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